Intersectional environmentalism is a term established by environmentalist Leah Thomas to explain the connection between marginalized communities and the issues facing the sustainability of our natural environment. To fully understand intersectional environmentalism it helps to know the meaning of intersectionality and the history of the environmental movement and race. Let’s get started!

What is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality was coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how identity markers “intersect” with one another and overlap. Identity markers include race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics. It recognizes that people experience the world differently based on their overlapping identity markers. 

“Intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers. Intersectionality recognizes that identity markers (e.g. “woman” and “Black”) do not exist independently of each other and that each informs the others, often creating a complex convergence of oppression.” (YW, Boston) For example, if you are an LGTBQ+ Black woman you experience discrimination differently than if you are an LBTBQ+ white man. You can read more about the history and meaning behind intersectionality here and here.

black woman on a dirt hiking trail turning to face the camera

Environmental Racism

Now that you know the meaning of intersectionality, let’s take a brief look at the history of environmentalism and race. The environmentalism movement as we know it today in the United States began in the early 1900s out of concerns for protecting the national resources and spaces in, particularly, the Western United States. The conservationist principles as well as the belief in a fundamental “right of nature” were to become the bedrock of modern environmentalism. The conservation work of men like Muir, Roosevelt, Wilson, and others of that era are lauded still today. They helped to create our national parks, protect animal species, and establish spending time in the outdoors as a form of recreation. But it’s important to note that their work was done to protect those spaces specifically for people just like them, upper-middle-class and aristocratic whites. 

The environmentalist movement in general has a long history of racism. When the Sierra Club polled its members, in 1972, on whether the club should “concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities,” 40% of respondents were strongly opposed, and only 15% were supportive. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published an influential report that found that hazardous waste facilities were disproportionately located in minority communities, and called this unequal vulnerability “a form of racism.” The environmental movement, the report observed, “has historically been white middle and upper-class.” (The New Yorker)

Why Does Race Matter?

Dr. Robert Bullard, who is known as the father of environmental justice, in a 2018 Greenpeace article, answers the question of why does race matter? when we talk about the environment. “When certain populations are somehow provided less protection from, say pollution, it’s because of race. Or at different times when locally unwanted land use is targeted for different reasons, like refineries and pipelines, it’s because of race and this becomes an issue around justice. Protection should not be distributed because of the color of your skin. Everyone deserves a clean, healthy, sustainable, and livable environment. That’s why race matters.”

Historical Discrimination

Communities of color are more often targeted to host undesirable and environmentally harmful facilities, such as hazardous waste sites, landfills, and dirty industrial plants. Due to high housing costs and historical discrimination, low-income and minority neighborhoods are clustered around industrial sites, truck routes, ports, and other air pollution hotspots. People of color are also more likely to live closer to pollution and harmful substances. A 2018 study by the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment found that Black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more airborne particulate matter than white people and that Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites. The study found that people in poverty had about 1.3 times more exposure than people above poverty. A 2005 study from the University of Michigan found that Black children are five times more likely to be poisoned by lead. More than one hundred Indigenous reserves in Canada don’t have access to safe drinking water. Lower-income cities such as Flint, Michigan; Boyle Heights, California; Liberty-Clairton, Pennsylvania; and others are affected by poor air quality or unsafe drinking water. The list of these disparities goes on and on and on.

Historically, people of color have also had less access to the outdoors, whether it be a lack of green spaces in urban neighborhoods to feeling unwelcome or unsafe in typical outdoor recreation areas. Like much of the United States, the outdoors were segregated or off limits to people of color, including swimming pools, beaches, parks, and even our National Parks. Even though the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 removed tangible restrictions, the tensions, emotions and unseen barriers to the outdoors for people of color still exist today. 

Putting it Together

The bottom line, fighting for the environment means something completely different to people of color. The traditional environmental movement fights for the preservation of land, air and water, but the fight doesn’t serve all people equally.

young black girl playing on a swingset

Leah Thomas defines Intersectional Environmentalism as “An inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional Environmentalism advocates for justice for people + the planet.”

She explains, “I wasn’t able to separate my identity from my environmentalism and this is when I discovered environmental justice. Environmental justice is the intersection of both social justice and environmentalism, where the inequity in environmental degradation is also considered.” (The Good Trade) Additionally, she writes, “This is the environmentalism that I would like to see in the world, one that has anti-racism and environmental justice embedded deeply within the philosophy, and which acknowledges the intersections of social justice and environmentalism.” (Youth to the People)

Next Steps

Intersectional environmentalism acknowledges not only the protection of the planet as a whole but for all of the people that live on this planet. By reading this article and others on intersectional environmentalism you’ve taken the first step. Understand the history of the environmentalist movement as it relates to racism, civil rights, and social justice. Follow, share, and learn from people of color in the outdoors. Instead of saviorism (“How can I save these people?”), being an intersectional advocate asks, “How can I use my privilege to amplify the work already being done?” (The Good Trade) Look locally to see how you can contribute to your area. Can you advocate for more bus routes to local parks, more green space in urban areas, or to remove environmentally harmful facilities? Initiatives such as 10 Minute Walk or working with your local city government to close a street to motorized vehicles opening up more recreational space in urban areas are simple places to start. Continue to unlearn and learn to broaden your perspective to be an ally for change.

If we truly want to protect our natural environment, we have to break down the barriers to spending time in the outdoors for all people. 

“One day I hope we won’t need the term “intersectional” to preface environmentalism. One day I hope that when people think of an environmentalist, they’ll automatically envision an activist that cares about both people and the planet.” Leah Thomas

Recommended Further Reading and References:

Photos courtesy of Krystal Weir @krystalweirphotography, and Ali Chandra @alirae29.

About Hike it Baby

Hike it Baby is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to getting families outdoors and on trails across the U.S. and internationally, supporting, educating and inspiring families through their more than 300 communities across North America. Since its grassroots inception in 2013 in Portland, Oregon, Hike it Baby is now a growing community of 270,000 families and 500 volunteer branch ambassadors hosting more than 1,600 hikes per month. More information, as well as daily hike schedules, can be found at HikeitBaby.com, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram.

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